October 29, 2007

Reimagining the Automobile Industry by Selling the Electricity - New York Times

Ah, yes, the nirvana of plug-in electric cars! Marvelous idea, but one critical factor is missing in this story: How will all the electricity be generated for this vision, which essentially substitutes electricity for petroleum? What would be the total demand and from what sources?

Without addressing this requirement, the scheme is a little like Will Rogers' WWII plan to destroy all the German submarines by heating up the ocean and boiling them. When asked how to do that, he essentially replied "I'm a strategy guy, implementation is for others."

I support this electric vehicle idea, but the only realistic way for it to come to pass is additional large scale generation of electricity, probably nuclear, and upgrading the grid to handle it. Or you can decide to charge your car only when the wind blows or the sun shines and plan your travel accordingly.

October 28, 2007

What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand? - New York Times

Mr. Downes' rant about the word illegal as it applies to those living in this country illegally is an absurdity. Illegal aliens is a perfectly correct description of those who are in this country and have broken our laws to be here. I suppose its helpful to be exposed to all the views about this immense problem. But most Americans , Mr. Downes excluded, seem to understand the reality that we have not enforced our immigration laws nor secured our borders. Shame on us, but the 'illegals' are still illegal.

There is much debate about the problem and what to do about it, but there should be little about the descriptive adjective applied to those who have not followed our rules.

I can sympathize with the plight we and the millions of illegals face, and I understand all the arguments about amnesty, economic impacts, justice, fairness, etc., ad nauseam.

Mr. Downes would have us believe there is something sinister and nasty about the word. It does not 'pollute the debate' as he alleges. Words have meaning and illegal aliens is a proper use of the language.

Mr. Downes suggests no better descriptor or a solution to the problem. His rant is foolish and silly.

Vermont's Electricity Future

The Colchester Sun and the Essex Reporter published my views (below...without photos) about electrical energy on October 25, 2007.

Recently I attended a workshop in South Burlington, one of a series conducted by the Department of Public Service to obtain public input, about Vermont's electricity future. As we approach the expiration of contracts early in the next decade for most of our base-load power, examination of Vermont's choices for sources of electricity will help inform the electric companies and policy makers. However, when the public has its say and new contracts are negotiated, expect to pay more, perhaps considerably more, for your electricity if ideology replaces common sense.

Unless Vermonters agree to recognize that we have limited choices to meet our base-load demand for electricity, we will pay more than necessary and risk our economy. The clamor for green energy, energy independence and renewable energy sources has been deafening. Also high on the public's list of issues is climate change and efficient use of electricity. However, we must see clearly through the trees of this tangled forest and realize that our near-term choices for the bulk of our electricity are realistically limited. We should not waste effort on frivolous hopes for marginal electricity sources that cannot sustain our future demand.

Because two thirds of our extremely reliable supply for many years must be renewed or replaced within 3-5 years, the only rational choices to meet our needs for 24/7 electricity, assuming we (specifically our Legislature) have the wisdom not to oppose them as a matter of policy, continue to be nuclear and large scale hydro from Canada. It's unrealistic to think that wind, solar, small hydro, wood, cows or any other Vermont-based source of electricity can add significantly to our supply. For the moment, these are merely 'feel-good', but unrealistic choices; helpful, perhaps in 2050, but inconsequential in 2015.

If folks are ideologically disposed to obtain their power only from those specific electricity sources, e.g., Vermont renewables, they should pay the higher price for their choice and not burden the general body of consumers with higher costs. CVPS does it now for cow-power. We must take great care not to substitute ideological, but impractical thinking for a rational, common sense approach to choosing our base-load electricity. These minuscule sources of power in Vermont, with the possible exception of wood-fired generators, simply cannot meet any significant part of our future base-load demand, certainly not in the near future. Therefore, our short term decisions should be based primarily on the least-cost power from the most reliable sources.

We should also test our demand forecasts for accuracy. Very important factors in that demand will be the efficiency achieved through conservation, the need for considerably more electricity if/as we move to plug-in electric vehicles to substitute electricity from the grid for petroleum. We should heavily weight the high side of the possible demand rather than the low side as we move deeper into electronic-intensive lifestyles and work environments. Determining the future bill for our electricity should be based on a number of demand/source scenarios and presented to the public and policy makers to identify clearly how much more they would pay.

Let's not impair the reliability of the sources or delivery of our electricity. Vermont has had a beneficial and rational electricity policy for many years, one that is already greener and less expensive than in other New England states. Let's not torpedo it with specious arguments about climate change or believe that wind, solar, more local hydro or biomass choices can provide any more than a tiny fraction of the electricity that we will need. To do so would jeopardize our economic health.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant

October 27, 2007

Technology, the Stealthy Tattletale - New York Times

Benevolent Big Brother??

GPS technology is wonderfully (or sinisterly) powerful with so many uses to track people and things that 2007 seems eerily like Orwell's 1984. The Internet and all its peripherals is becoming an extension of our consciousness and a guardian or watchman of our lives. Many will argue this is not a good thing. History shows us that it will be a mixed blessing, but I believe the benefits will outweigh the detriments. 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.'

The Outsourced Brain - New York Times

The Outsourced Brain - New York Times

David brooks, always the keen observer of society, scores a hit in describing the modern 'outsourced brain' of man/woman. We are deeply connected with all sorts of electronic helpmates which guide us and shape our knowledge and twirl our worldview.

I think back to the days when salesmen went door to door selling encyclopedias for your children's education and yearbooks that you could buy for twenty bucks to keep current on what happened last year. We bought the Americana because we couldn't afford Britannica and it seemed more patriotic, too. That set of thirty or so volumes anchored the two bottom shelves of our bookcase for three decades. The books are gone now, replaced by an assortment of photo albums, maps and miscellaneous other books. The Internet is my encyclopedia.

Now if I want to know anything, it's click, click to Wikipedia or any number of sites that Google or Microsoft finds for me. I remain in awe of how much information has moved to the Web in such a short time and the enormous number of useful sites. I counted up my password-protected websites and I have nearly a hundred for anything from frivolity to finances.

I stop to think about life before the Internet and how radically different it was. And as all this capability migrates to wireless devices, we are no longer tethered to the desk; we can take it all with us, ad supported of course. Must remember to keep my batteries charged!

October 24, 2007

The Western Water Dilemma

A long piece in the Sunday Times, but worth reading to understand the enormous problems facing the dry western regions of the U.S. When I read this and as I have traveled through that region, I am thankful that I live in Vermont, a place with abundant water.

October 23, 2007

Windows Home Server in depth: the Ars Technica review: Page 3

Windows Home Server in depth: the Ars Technica review

I'm capturing this link to an excellent review of the workings of Windows Home Server soon to be on store shelves. HP is one company among several that will have its own product, not yet available (10/23/07). I'll look intently at this offering. If it will make life easier for storage and manipulation of our photos and other data on my home network, I may consider it...if the price is right.

Cnet has a strongly positive review here for the HP version (HP MediaSmart Server ex475) with a terabyte of storage on two hard drives.

Ed Bott's very positive review of the HP server is here. It's well worth reading for those who are interested in buying. (That includes me).

The HP WHS is now available to order at Amazon.com.

How to build your own is here.

A very detailed review of HP's WHS is here.

WARNING: device driver updates causing Vista to deactivate | APC Magazine

WARNING: device driver updates causing Vista to deactivate APC Magazine

About three weeks ago I experienced this very painful problem of my perfectly legitimate Vista installation requiring reactivation. The process was handled efficiently by Microsoft, but the tribulation of rectifying a problem that was not of my making and had nothing to do with piracy which MS is rightly trying to prevent, was a two hour ordeal.

There has to be a better way for MS to keep legitimate users out of this ordeal. In addition, it has to be costly for MS, too, but perhaps not as costly as the piracy. I hope the upcoming Vista service pack will ameliorate this heavy inconvenience.

October 22, 2007

A Son of Immigrants Rises in a Southern State - New York Times

A Son of Immigrants Rises in a Southern State - New York Times

Why do I sense from this news report that the writer is not pleased that a conservative Catholic Indian Republican was elected governor of Louisiana? That seems to be the undertone of the article. Considering the sorry sinkhole that is Louisiana politics that elects incompetents such as Nagin and Blanco , this guy will have his work cut out for him.

He seems competent and energetic so let's hope he can help Louisiana. The best that can happen is that he will encourage others of competence and solid ethics to help move the state forward.

New York's Fight Over Drivers Licenses

Update: 10/30/07; NY Times editorial today

Spitzer has reversed course on his plan for drivers licenses to illegal aliens. Smart move, Governor. NY Times castigates him as being weak.

Spitzer's plan to provide NY drivers licenses to illegals is a bad idea and the Times justification of it is worse. Driving is a privilege. Of course we want safe drivers, but providing a license to people who live in NY, or anywhere else, illegally is bad public policy that flies in the face of the rule of law. Such privileges only encourage illegals to remain illegal. Insurance companies should not provide insurance to illegals. No-fault coverage will cover those people injured or sustaining damage by illegals.

"In this case, Mr. Spitzer is trying to make certain there is a safe driver behind the wheel of every car. That is no small matter. More than 40,000 people die in car crashes in the United States every year, more than 3,000 of them in New York State.

To help lower that toll, Mr. Spitzer recently announced that New York would join eight other states that do not require licensed drivers to prove that they are in the country legally. Instead, prospective drivers will need to prove exactly who they are, that they can drive safely, that they have car insurance, and that they live in New York State.

Critics of Mr. Spitzer’s plan are trying to paint it as a threat to national security. But as the governor outlined in a speech on Friday, there are important ways in which the opposite is true. His plan would give faces and addresses to many of the one million people who are not here legally, who live in the shadows. It would also make it vastly more difficult for someone to get more than one license. Richard Clarke, an adviser under the last four presidents, mostly on national security issues, has said that making driver’s licenses available to immigrants regardless of their legal status would promote security because “it is far preferable for the state to know who is living in it and driving on its roads.""

October 17, 2007

Failing Schools in America

The quote below from the NY Times article points to one among many of the problems that beset our schools. The problem is NOT the NCLB law. Far too many of our schools are failing and blame is plentiful, but unless teachers unions embrace the goals of the act and mend their ways rather than fighting it while talking from both sides of their mouths, little progress can be expected in the worst schools.

Where is the entertainment industry on the issue? They could, in the national interest, take on the challenge of persuading kids and parents of the value of good schools and good education, rather than the trash that passes for music and TV.

Why do so many people in Vermont oppose the NCLB law? Although Vermont students may be doing OKl compared to other states, our population is very homogeneous and we spend far too much money on K-12 education in achieving these results.

"At Woodrow Wilson High one recent morning, teachers broke into small groups over coffee studying test scores for areas of weakness. But there were limits to what they would learn.

The teachers analyzed results for the entire school, not for their own students. Roberto Martinez, the principal, said he had not given teachers the scores of their own students because their union objects, saying the scores were being used to evaluate teachers.

“And who suffers?” asked Veronica Garcia, an English teacher at Wilson. “The kids suffer, because the teacher never gets feedback.”

A. J. Duffy, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, said the union supported test score reviews provided they did not affect teachers’ jobs. Mr. Duffy said the federal law glossed over the travails of teaching students living in poverty. “Everyone agrees that urban education needs a shot in the arm, but it is not as bleak as the naysayers would have it,” he said."

October 11, 2007

Technology Review: Nuclear Energy Revs Up

A New Nuke Proposed for Texas

This is good news. Nuclear is the source of choice if we are serious about meeting America's demand for electricity.

"NRG Energy's application seeks permission to build two new reactors beside two existing reactors at the South Texas Project nuclear-power station, in Bay City, TX, adding 2,700 megawatts of capacity capable of powering about two million homes. NRG hopes to begin construction in 2010 and to be operating the reactors by 2015, assuming there are no significant regulatory or construction delays."

Compare this to Vermont's 'whistling in the wind' projects: Some experts believe that 20% of power demand, or 200 MW of utility scale wind projects, could be Vermont's potential. This Texas nuke proposal will produce 13.5 times that amount of baseload, dispatchable power.

October 10, 2007

Diet and fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus

This column by by John Tierney, published October 9, 2007 in the NYTimes is a 'must read,' not so much for the facts therein about fat and its effect on diet, but the wonderful description of how the 'bandwagon effect' against excess fat in the American diet played out over several decades. Could it be that the same bandwagon effect, or what I refer to as the 'groupthink' phenomenon, is capturing us in the global warming debate?

"When a group of people agree on something, that doesn’t always mean they are right." This is the quote from the article and we should heed it. People are swayed to believe what high-profile people say, and this is reinforced by the barrage of media influence. To believe differently or to be a skeptic often becomes a difficult position to hold. Ideology can quickly overwhelm facts, particularly when science is involved because so few people have an understanding of science.

Yet his warning is as appropriate in science as in any field when the tsunami of the majority overwhelms the minority. We see it at work in the climate change debate played out in the 'energy independence' steamroller that leads to 'consensus' thinking, even fanaticism, about wind power and solar energy sources.

We should be cautious about being swept away by the global warming 'consensus' or any other whirlwind.

October 8, 2007

For Google, advertising and phones go together | CNET News.com

Google's Mobile Phone Strategy

This excerpt from the Cnet column captures the essence of Google's likely plan for the mobile phone business.

"In short, Google is not creating a gadget to rival the iPhone, but rather creating software that will be an alternative to Windows Mobile from Microsoft and other operating systems, which are built into phones sold by many manufacturers. And unlike Microsoft, Google is not expected to charge phone makers a licensing fee for the software.

'The essential point is that Google's strategy is to lead the creation of an open-source competitor to Windows Mobile,' said one industry executive, who did not want his name used because his company has had contacts with Google. 'They will put it in the open-source world and take the economics out of the Windows Mobile business.'

Some believe that another major goal of the phone project is to loosen the control of carriers over the software and services that are available on their networks. 'Google's agenda is to disaggregate carriers,' said Dan Olschwang, the chief executive of JumpTap, a start-up that provides search and advertising services to several mobile-phone operators.

Google declined to comment on any specifics of its mobile-phone initiative. But its chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, has said several times that the cell phone market presented the largest growth opportunity for Google. "We have a large investment in mobile phones and mobile-phone platform applications," Schmidt said in an interview this year.

If anyone can pull it off, they are most likely to do it.

October 7, 2007

Selling Our RV

RV under contract - 10/20/07

Carol and I are selling our RV, a 21' Xplorer Widebody with many extra features, with a goal to buy another. You can see our Xplorer at this posting on Craigs List.

October 4, 2007

Microsoft Rolls Out Personal Health Records - New York Times

HealthVault is a Very Big Deal

This will take a little time to mature and all the privacy wonks will rant about trusting Microsoft (or any company) with important personal information, but I think momentum will build rapidly. It really is time for a rapid move to Electronic Health/Medical Records. If consumers push this option with their health care providers while Microsoft pulls the health care industry into it, we may have a very significant achievement. Meanwhile, a host of others are planning similar services. Uncharacteristically, Microsoft is first in this space. They must believe in a first mover advantage. Perhaps we are on an accelerated path where inertia will not rule.

The really big issue, though is standards. With the critical nature and broad uses of EHR, the standards issue looms very large and is not easy to resolve. Some industry and government groups are surely working on these issues, but I don't know if the process has matured. I doubt that Microsoft has a set of open standards for HealthVault.

Here's a good description of the problem from the Forbes article referenced below:

"There is no shortage of skeptics for a dozen reasons. "The concept behind it is dead on track, but it won't work very well" without a better way to integrate data from local doctors, predicts medical data guru Brent James, vice president for research at Utah's Intermountain Healthcare. The bottleneck, he says, is that there is no universal way to get blood test results, imaging scans and other basic data from thousands of local doctors and labs onto the Web.

"The intercommunications don't exist to get the data from where they now live into this central format and back out again to the physicians and nurses who would use them," James says."

In thinking about our health care conundrum (cost too high; quality not as good as it could be; private vs. public insurance; too many without coverage, etc.), I'm reminded of Milton Friedman's (a world-respected free market advocate and Nobel prize winning economist) answer to a question using health care in the U.S. as an example of the need for more market-based medicine.
Question: Is there an area here in the United States in which we have not been as aggressive as we should in promoting property rights and free markets?

Answer: Yes, in the field of medical care. We have a socialist-communist system of distributing medical care. Instead of letting people hire their own physicians and pay them, no one pays his or her own medical bills. Instead, there's a third party payment system. It is a communist system and it has a communist result. Despite this, we've had numerous miracles in medicine. From the discovery of penicillin, to new surgical techniques, to MRIs and CAT scans, the last 30 or 40 years have been a period of of miraculous change in medical science.

On the other hand, no one is happy: physicians don't like it; patients don't like it. Why? Because none of them are responsible for themselves. You no longer have a situation in which a patient chooses a physician, receives a service, gets charged, and pays for it. There is no direct relation between the patient and the physician. The physician is an employee of an insurance company or an employee of the government. Today a third party pays the bills. As a result no one who visits the doctor asks what the charge is going to be - somebody else is going to take care of that. The end result is third party payment and, worst of all, third party treatment.

Question: Following the recent expansion in prescription drug benefits and Medicare, what hope is there for a return to the free market in medical care?

Answer: It does seem that markets are on the defensive, but there is hope. The expansion of drug benefits was accompanied by the introduction of health savings accounts - HSAs. That's the one hopeful sign in the medical area, because it's a step in the direction of making people responsible for themselves and for their care. No one spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own." *

HealthVault is a step in the direction of 'making people responsible for themselves.' I hope we can absorb this thinking, rather than trot down the gloomy path of 'socialized' medicine.

Update: 10/5/07

More here on HealthVault:

Microsoft: We’re good for your health by ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley -- Microsoft has been signaling its intentions to enter the health-records-management space for more than a year. On October 4, the company finally provided an official game plan of what it's readying on the health care software and services front.

Here is The Economist's take on the announcement.

Forbes has a piece on HealthVault, too.

*quote from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, July 2006 -Volume 35, Number 7

PC World - Business Center: Environmental Group Questions Carbon Offsetting

Carbon Offsetting: Good business or a "feel good" activity

Although I have not studied the issue in depth, the whole idea of carbon offsets, 'cap and trade' schemes and other methods to be green that are in vogue cause me to look askance at them. First of all, there is no solid evidence that climate change is reversible by efforts of mankind. Tom Evslin has an eloquent post here about our fallible hubris in thinking we can control climate change.

It seems to me all these schemes are meant more to capitalize on emotions of customers and create markets using a notion that is in vogue. Companies want to be seen as 'with it' and use the momentum of the issue to make a buck. GE, among others, is doing so handsomely. But their investments are mostly about cleaning up water and using efficient machines to save energy dollars. I'm all for that.

I see this 'cap and trade' mania as something the old Enron would be good at.

Score One for Diplomacy - New York Times

Score One for Diplomacy - New York Times:

While the Times gives grudging approval to the Bush administration's deal with North Korea to dump its nuke program, suggesting that the same 'negotiations" strategy will work with Iran defies common sense. In Korea, we're dealing with an egotistical maniac who has turned his country and economy into a basket case.

In Iran we're dealing with jihadist theology/ideology where the leaders believe that destroying Israel and America are first priority. The conditions are nowhere near the same in the two countries. Negotiations without force as a backup will not work

"We also hope that with a solid foreign policy success now in reach, Mr. Bush will learn the lesson of the North Korea deal and tell his diplomats to turn the same creativity, flexibility and follow-through toward trying to end Iran’s nuclear program."

October 3, 2007

Limbaugh Latest Victim in War of Condemnation - New York Times

The Congress is Nuts

Wasting time and energy in Congress with letters and resolutions about what a talk show host says is nuts. When will we have leadership and rationality in this body? What is this nation becoming? So sad.

October 1, 2007

Microsoft Office Live Workspace

I've pre-registered for this new service from Microsoft. I can see many uses for it and the service is the first deep foray by Microsoft into Google's Docs & Spreadsheets territory, which has captured me because it's an enormously useful service. Now I'll be torn between the two.

In any event, this opens the future for online document storage to many folks who have not yet made the transition from the "Web for email and the PC for documents mentality." I am so firmly sold on the Internet as the place to work, store and share all kinds of documents and media, that I may never reach the hard drive capacity of my new PC.

All this Web functionality puts enormous focus on reliability, security and ease of access to broadband connections. As I think about the near-term future of the Internet, I am very optimistic. However, the inertia created by what people are comfortable with and the rules of companies for using these online storage and sharing services will probably slow down mainstream adoption.

The wired and wireless broadband future will condition how we work and communicate with an even more powerful influence than the telephone in the 20th century. Thank you Tim Berners-Lee, DARPA, XEROX-PARC, Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor, Marc Andreeson, and the numerous other Internet pioneers and all those software and communications companies and researchers who made and continue to make this possible.

Use My Photo? Not Without Permission - New York Times

The Intricacies of Online Sharing of Photos

This scenario described by Cohen in the Times targets the growing issues associated with sharing information & photos on Web sites. I think the Creative Commons licensing scheme is a good idea and I use the "Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike" option for my photos on Flickr. A few months ago I had a request form a travel guide to use one of my photos and I agreed. The system works and seems fair to me as long as people understand that photographers have rights to their photos.

In this case the lawsuit is about the rights of a person in a photograph. They obviously have rights and people who know what they are doing will get a release from the subjects before using a photo or video including a real person.